More Diegetic Music: Ten Movies, Ten Scenes

Inspired by my recent post about uses of diegetic music within the worlds of new movies I saw in 2015, I have come up with ten more examples of music performed or listened to by characters in other films I watched last year – except these are all films made before 2014/2015. Enjoy!

You Were Never Lovelier (1942, dir. William A. Seiter) – “The Shorty George” – In this romantic comedy set in Buenos Aires, the second pairing of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth (the first being You’ll Never Get Rich in 1941), Astaire plays an entertainer wooing Hayworth, who is the daughter of a nightclub owner. Astaire works in the club along with famed bandleader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, who are seen in the clip and provide the tuneage for this scene. The song itself, composed by Jerome Kern and written by Johnny Mercer, is a paean to jive and swing music popular in America at the time, in particular the “Shorty George” step attributed to African-American dancer George “Shorty” Snowden. Rita Hayworth’s singing was dubbed by Nan Wynn in this and other scenes in You Were Never Lovelier, but clearly Hayworth worked hard at being able to dance at Astaire’s level, making her one of his finest partners in the post-Ginger Rogers years.

Kiss Me Kate (1953, dir. George Sidney) – “Too Darn Hot” – Ann Miller and her backing orchestra perform a number that serves as Miller’s audition for the show-within-the-film, a Broadway musical also titled Kiss Me Kate. The number is one that that we never see performed again in the film, evidently cut from the finished production before opening night. But how could any subsequent staging possibly top this fabulous presentation? Miller is on fire, putting every corner of the cramped apartment space to use, which is even more fun when you see the film in 3D and her accessories fly out of the screen toward the viewer.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) – Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – This scene is our introduction to Chinese Roulette; opening credits don’t appear until several minutes later. We don’t know who these characters played by Margit Carstensen (the woman) and Andrea Schober (the girl) are; we don’t learn that they are mother and daughter until later in the scene, after the doorbell rings. As always, Fassbinder composes his shots like paintings, arranging his frames very thoughtfully and considering details like costumes, set design and his actresses’ makeup with great care. The use of Mahler, in conjunction with the neatly constructed design of both the house and the outfit that Carstensen wears, has a lush grandeur that reminds me of Douglas Sirk, whose American films Fassbinder loved so much. (Fassbinder once wrote that “Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.”) I see an additional connection in Fassbinder’s incorporation of windows and mirrors here, elements which Sirk loved to focus on in his films. I don’t know about you, but when I first watched this opening scene from Chinese Roulette, I knew that I wanted to know more about what was going on, which I think is exactly what a film’s introduction should do.

Autumn Sonata (1978, dir. Ingmar Bergman) – Chopin, Prelude No. 2 in A Minor – World-renowned concert pianist Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman in her final film) visits her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) for a few days; they pretend for a while that they can be cordial to one another but we slowly begin to understand how much Eva has suffered, starting with feeling neglected and abandoned as a child when her mother went on her endless series of concert tours. Just prior to this scene, Eva plays the Chopin Prelude No. 2, filled with nervous mistakes. She tries so hard to be good enough at the piano (even in playing it as a hobby rather than as a profession) for her mother, but Charlotte – far from being impressed or even attempting to be motherly and kind – can only point out Eva’s errors, not only from a technical standpoint but in terms of the correct emotional interpretations (at least as far as Charlotte sees things). Charlotte may understand the “right” sentiments to apply to one’s mastery of the Chopin piece, but in this scene, we watch Eva and we know that she has more humanity and compassion inside her than Charlotte ever could contain. As a mother, Charlotte doesn’t know the first thing about how to behave. She has a connection to the music she plays, but she has no real, meaningful relationship with the daughter sitting next to her. We feel the weight of Eva’s silent years of bitter disappointment. She realizes she cannot play the piano like her mother, but more crucially, they cannot communicate. Worse yet, Eva’s loving husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) is there to witness the uncomfortable exchange, incapable of saying anything to ameliorate the situation.

Pretty in Pink (1986, dir. Howard Deutch) – “Try a Little Tenderness” – I always wonder if it was secretly the point of the films that John Hughes wrote (as in this case) and sometimes directed that the characters played by Molly Ringwald should always be so thoroughly unlikeable. This is certainly the case in Pretty in Pink; her character, Andie, is desperately in love with a rich kid and therefore cannot see that her best friend, eccentric Duckie (Jon Cryer) pines for her. Even in this over-the-top scene of lipsyncing to Otis Redding in the record store where Andie works (the boss, Iona, is played by Annie Potts), Andie is totally clueless and thinks Duckie is just an irrepressible goofball with a knack for doing odd stuff without any reason. Poor Duckman!

Before Sunrise (1995, dir. Richard Linklater) – “Come Here” – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had no way of knowing that this romantic drama was a seed that would blossom into a trilogy spanning eighteen years of their lives (Before Sunset was released in 2004 and Before Midnight in 2013). This first film has all the sweetness of two complete strangers falling in love in the course of one day. After sharing a brief chat on the train they took to Vienna, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) make the impulsive decision to continue their conversation by spending the rest of the day together in the city. In this scene, when they visit a record shop, Delpy recognizes the name of an obscure American singer-songwriter, Kath Bloom, whose music she has never heard but which has been recommended to her. Celine and Jesse go into a booth in the store, listen to the LP, and you see all the longing, tension and hope existing between the two people for what their potential future might hold – each wondering when the right moment will be for them to kiss for the first time.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, dir. Robert Rodriguez) – “After Dark” – Salma Hayek, playing a mysterious dancer named “Santanico Pandemonium,” makes her dramatic entrance in a film that starts out as a heist/hostage-taking flick but takes a turn for the weird when the main characters, brothers played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (their hostages include Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis), flee to Mexico. Swaying to the beat of the song performed by Tito & Tarantula, the moments when Hayek sticks her foot in Tarantino’s mouth are definite highlights (not a surprise – he did write the screenplay, after all!), but my favorite part is the confused and disgusted look on Juliette Lewis’s face at the end.

Bread and Tulips (2000, dir. Silvio Soldini) – “Tu, solamente tu” (“You, Only You,” recorded by Tiola Silenzi in 1939) and “Franska Valsen” (accordion piece composed by Lars Hollmer) – A romantic comedy about taking chances, Licia Maglietta plays a housewife, Rosalba, who escapes her boring family (including a husband and a son) in the Italian countryside and takes an apartment in Venice, starting a new life for herself. This includes befriending Fernando (Bruno Ganz), a maître d’ who has begun to realize that he is in love with Rosalba as he listens to a Tiola Silenzi song on his hi-fi (hence the beginning and ending parts of the clip above), and also learning to play the accordion, a passion that Rosalba demonstrates for Grazia (Marina Massironi), a friend who lives in her building. Grazia, needless to say, is amazed by her neighbor’s newly discovered reserves of talent.

Hustle & Flow (2005, dir. Craig Brewer) – “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” – The winner of that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song, this rap/sung collaboration is written by protagonist DJay (Terrence Howard), who is recording demos for what he hopes will be a successful breakthrough in the music world. The story he tells is his own, the grueling tale of a pimp who has to work hard to keep his personal life and his business in order on the streets of Memphis. One of the women who lives with and works for DJay, Shug (Taraji P. Henson), is given the opportunity to sing the chorus of the song, and hearing her voice played back for the first time is a kind of validation that she has never experienced before.

I Love You, Man (2009, dir. John Hamburg) – “Tom Sawyer” – Friendless, uptight Peter (Paul Rudd) meets weird, wild Sydney (Jason Segel), and because opposites can attract, the two end up becoming besties who spend more and more free time together, to the growing annoyance of Peter’s fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones, who is nothing but supportive in this clip because it’s still early in the film). Their shared love of the rock band Rush, specifically the song “Tom Sawyer,” leads to them playing it in Sydney’s garage, which allows for director John Hamburg to include a montage of other shining moments from the newfound bromance.


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